The last time Youngstown State's football program opened 4-0 (2000), former head coach Jim Tressel had jurisdiction over the Penguins side lines. Since his departure from the Penguins in 2001, they are 73-57 after going 135-57-2 under Tressel. The head coaching job now belongs to third-year Head Coach Eric Wolford, who coached the Penguins to 6-5 record in 2011 and is now 12-11 overall. Head-to-head action kicked off this weekend in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, matching up No. 4 YSU against No. 8 UNI for early supremacy and confidence in the conference.
Last year’s meeting between Northern Iowa and Youngstown State resulted in a heart breaking loss for the Penguins, surrendering the scoreboard lead to the Panthers with less than two minutes remaining in the game, losing on the road 21-17. The last minute win by UNI increased their winning streak to 11 straight games dating back to 2001. That particular loss incorporated with their road win over eventual FCS Champion North Dakota State (lone loss coming from YSU) in 2011 left the Penguins looking to be on the cusp of bigger and better things in 2012. Prior to tonight’s kickoff, their 3-0 start to the season was accentuated with the upset road win opener over the Pittsburgh Panthers. That win ignited the 2012 Penguins fans that have endured four losing seasons in the last nine years.
The strong Penguins pulse from the rust-belt community was building with this highly anticipated game resulting in the YSU Department of Athletics opening up another parking lot to accommodate tailgaters. The 27th meeting between both schools left general admission seats being sold out, leading to YSU’s ninth largest crowd (19,277) to watch Penguins football.
“You can’t be afraid and you can’t play conservative,” said Head Coach Eric Wolford, whose wife was nearly in tears after the Penguins win over Northern Iowa 42-35. Wolford was referring to two pivotal fourth down calls that were the difference makers in the closely contested game.
Youngstown State ranked second in total offense in MVFC heading into tonight’s game and showed their offensive power scoring on their first two drives. The Penguins put together a well-balanced offensive attack with running back Jamaine Cook and quarterback Kurt Hess. Hess completed nine of his 12 passes in the first half to nine different receivers. With the crowd in their favor and the safe confines of home, the early outlook seemed that YSU was going to win big by winning early.
Northern Iowa pulled off dramatic come backs the last two years, winning both games under two minutes and eight seconds. Being accustomed to storming back, the Panthers were not bewildered trailing on the road 21-7 at Stambaugh Stadium. Instead, they rattled off 14 points in one minute and 25 seconds between the second and third quarters—tying the game 21-21. Red shirt freshman quarterback for UNI Sawyer Kollmorgen threw two quick strikes to No. 7 tailback David Johnson that resulted in the tied game. The Panthers would not let up as they continued to score, putting up 21 unanswered points and taking the lead 28-21 in front of a stunned crowd braving the cold and rain.
That’s where Wolford’s coaching style moving forward for YSU began to shed its light: “It’s a mentality you have to have. I probably learned that from Coach (Steve) Spurrier.” regarding the fact that you can not play conservative. Wearing a gray suit and light blue tie, Wolford said “we have lost too many close games here and there by me being conservative and we’re not going to be a conservative team.”
The mentality he spoke of came to fruition twice in both the third and fourth quarters when YSU converted two fourth down plays that were critical in winning tonight’s game. The first fourth down play was a 4th and two that went for a touchdown, tying the game 28-28 after junior quarterback Kurt Hess connected with senior tight end Will Shaw for the 43-yard score. “It’s something me and Will (Shaw) have worked on together through the off-season.” Hess said, still standing in his uniform fielding post-game questions adding that the “biggest thing offensively was keep playing and never give up.” The second conversion was 4th and four at the UNI 29 yard line, where Hess connected with Shaw again for 26 yards that set up the two yard touchdown by running back Torrian Pace, tying the game 35-35.
YSU’s final drive of the game began with 6:11 left in the fourth quarter that resulted in another aggressive call by Coach Wolford playing for the touchdown and not settling for a field goal. From the 26 yard line on a 3rd and three, Hess dropped back and riffled in a pass receiver Christian Bryan for the go-ahead touchdown. With the score 42-35, the Panthers had 1:42 left in the fourth quarter to put another dagger in the Penguins, continuing their winning streak over YSU.
The comeback would fall short for the Panthers. The final play of the game would be snapped at the YSU five yard line with five seconds left with Kollmorgen’s pass incomplete to receiver Brett LeMaster. “Probably the biggest win at Stambaugh Stadium I’ve ever had,” Hess said “but at the same time we have to stay hungry.”
Both the city of Youngstown and the schools football program are having resurgence. The city is seeing a rival downtown with new business moving in while the Penguins are off to their best start since 2000. “We play for this community,” Wolford said “Youngstown has had hard times and we play for this university and we play for a lot of people.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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